Beyond Fact-Checking: Fighting the Onslaught of COVID-19 Disinformation

By: Jennifer Dorroh | 07/02/2020

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

To fight the COVID-19 “disinfodemic,” journalists must move beyond simply debunking the false information spread online, three experts said during a webinar this week. 

As the global pandemic nears the four-month mark, a  “disinfodemic” is growing as bad actors are churning out an onslaught of dangerous misinformation--some of it deliberately misleading about the virus and its impacts. 

Increasingly, governments are using disinformation as a political weapon, and the consequences are sometimes deadly. Disinformation campaigns also often target journalists through online violence laced with racist and misogynistic hate speech. 

Through it all, reporters and news outlets are bombarded with the task of fact-checking and de-bunking a never-ending stream of false claims. 

While this work is important, journalists and news organizations should also demand reform from social media platforms and more aggressively cover the stories behind the disinformation, counter-disinformation experts said. 

“If the platforms wanted to, they could restore facts, and that, I think, should be our call,” said Maria Ressa, founder of the Philippines independent news site Rappler. 

“In the short term, right now, if we want to protect our democracies, if we want to have integrity of elections, the social media platforms have got to kick in, and they are doing it at way too slow a pace,” Ressa said. 

Journalists should report on disinformation “as we cover any other story,” said Natalia Antelava, cofounder of independent news site CodaStory. “It's a story that has victims and perpetrators, that has those who lose and those who win.” 

“There have been amazing fact-checking sites and organizations, but I think a very important juncture is the one where we are going to stop reacting to the agenda set by others and start setting our own agenda,” she said. 

Antelava and Ressa joined BuzzFeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko and Gilberto Scofield of fact-checking organization Agencia Lupa for a panel examining the disinfodemic with ICFJ Global Research Director Dr. Julie Posetti. ICFJ organized the session in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.



News organizations should also educate the public in how they contribute to the problem. People “might not necessarily understand the role that they're playing in not just passing false information on to their relatives or their immediate circles, but how that disinformation spreads through diasporas, through translations, through comments and how that transcends borders,” said Lytvynenko, who covers disinformation.

“We're, even in the U.S., now seeing lawmakers use disinformation and use conspiracy theories as a way of building up audiences,” she said.

That strategy--undermining factual reporting and attacking the reputation of journalists--is proving effective for Brazil’s Bolsonaro administration, Scofield said. Agencia Lupa debunks government statements, which often underplay the danger of the COVID-19 virus.

“The government is saying things on a daily basis that are really unsupportable in terms of science, in terms of databases, in terms of how the pandemic is moving around the country and the number of people dead,” he said. 

“Every time we do a fact-check like this,” he said, “we receive a lot of criticism saying that we are being partisan,” despite the lack of a strong opposition party in Brazil. 

The government spreads anti-journalist vitriol, and he and his team receive death threats on a daily basis. “We’re really living through hell here in Brazil,” he said of the epidemic of disinformation during the pandemic.


[View past webinars and key quotes]


Rappler’s Ressa said social media platforms are “allowing governments to manipulate not just what's in your mind, what you're thinking, but it is radicalizing all of us to a point’s killed democracy,” she said.

In 2016, Ressa first alerted the journalism community and Facebook about how Philippines President Duterte was weaponizing social media. In 2017 she spoke for the first time about how troll armies linked to the state were attacking Rappler and her personally. In the intervening years, Ressa and Rappler have been charged in connection with a total of 11 cases; Ressa has been arrested twice, and detained once.  

In June, the Philippines convicted Ressa of criminal “cyber libel” under the country’s Cybercrime Prevention Act, for a story published prior to enactment of the law. The story focused on corruption allegations. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Ressa’s conviction and sentencing of up to six years in prison “an outrageous crime against press freedom.” 

ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan described the campaign of harassment against Ressa  as “a bevy of charges designed to silence her and Rappler.

Ressa said Facebook, which is a fact-checking partner of Rappler, has played a large role in “my criminalization, in my conviction, I would say quite a lot because it seeds the ground,” she said. “It has enabled the rise of these populist leaders who have consolidated power using these platforms, using disinformation as a political tactic, tearing down journalists, news organizations, because critical to their consolidation of power is getting rid of any kinds of challenges. And journalists pose challenges.”

Their algorithms are behavioral modification systems “designed on the idea that ‘like attracts like,’” which she said builds radicalization into the system. 

“We lose the nuances,” she said. “It makes facts debatable. Lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest. This is manipulative. It is meant to divide. It reminds me of terrorists. You know, it is ‘us against them.’ And that is part of the reason our world is where it is today.”

Lytvynenko believes the “disinfodemic” presents an opportunity. “Social media platforms have very clearly become more afraid of the direct effects that disinformation can have,” she said. “This is an opportunity where reporters can keep pressing social media companies for answers.” 

She thinks U.S journalists should take the lead. “Social media companies respond to U.S. reporters,” she said. Often, “they do not pay the same level of attention to smaller markets and international reporters,” she said. 

She advised: “Focus on how this is playing out in other countries, both as a way of understanding what will eventually happen to the U.S., but also as a way of supporting reporters whose livelihood is being put in danger because of this problem.”

The webinar was part of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project, a collaboration between ICFJ and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. The Journalism and the Pandemic Project is also mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on journalism worldwide, and it aims to help inform the recovery. Learn more.

[View past webinars and key quotes]

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